Free Agents by Dr. K J Mitchell: review

 “Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will” by Dr. Kevin J. Mitchell.

I’m currently concerned with how well our existing concepts equip us to discuss consciousness and free will.  Dr. Mitchell promises to help out:

A purely reductionist, mechanistic approach to life completely misses the point… basic laws of physics that deal only with energy and matter and fundamental forces cannot explain what life is or its defining property: living organisms do things, for reasons, as causal agents in their own right… I present a conceptual framework that aims to naturalize the concept of agency by grounding the otherwise vague or even mystical-sounding concepts of purpose, meaning, and value. The truth is that, far from being unscientific, those concepts are crucial to understanding what life is, how true agency can exist, and what sorts of freedoms or limitations we actually have as human beings.

while warning that:

“Do we have free will?” is undermined in an obvious way by a lack of agreed-on definitions.

So Mitchell promises to apply both scientific discourse and everyday language discourse in a satisfactory account of free will. How successful is he? That’s what my review will focus on.

The bulk of his text consists of summaries of every science touching on life. He includes even accounts of basic physics such as quantum theory. His reasoning:

How can we think about things like purpose and value and meaning without sinking into mysticism or vague metaphor? I argue that we can do so by locating these concepts in simpler creatures and then following how they were elaborated over the course of evolution…

Anyone curious about free will is likely to be bored by his accounts of familiar science, and skim, as I did, so I may have misunderstood him. But as he rises from one level in the emergence of intelligence among living creatures to another he seemed to me to be looking for cracks in determinism he could aggregate into a space big enough to squeeze free will into. From his blog,

The idea that an organism can have causal power, as a whole entity, as a self, depends on concepts of emergence and downward causality.

This continues throughout the book, culminating in a recapitulation of his argument in a final chapter titled “Free will.”

When you use everyday terms to refer to the evolution of intelligence, as Mitchell does, an obvious danger is you’ll mistakenly project your own evaluative terms onto the creatures you’re studying. To illustrate, of an animal that’s lost its leg you might say it is “wanting” a leg, “wanting” here meaning merely missing but confusable with the animal consciously “wanting” its leg back. Such confusion is referred to as the “pathetic fallacy.” Mitchell’s challenge is to gain new insight into free will by employing everyday terms along with scientific terms without falling into this fallacy. I’m interested because that’s exactly what I’m concerned with—valid ways of talking about consciousness and free will.

How does he do, in his final summing up? I’m not sure. Maybe he defined and qualified his terms in prior chapters, freeing him to use them as he does here.  In the following, taken again from his blog, what are we to assume he means by "represent"? What does his "represent" represent?

They’re higher-order patterns of neural activation that represent beliefs and desires and goals and possible actions.

Brief quotes may do him an injustice, but it’s the best I can do. From his final chapter titled “Free will,” in order as they appear:

Living things strive, actively, to keep themselves organized… The first glimmers of meaning and value inhered in these responses: approach or avoidance was good or bad for the organism, relative to its goal of persistence. Organisms now had reasons for doing things… patterns of neural activity that do not just have pragmatic consequences but rather have semantic content: they mean something to the organism… At some point in evolution, our internal models became so abstract and recursive that they gave rise to mental experience… through both biological innovations and cumulative cultural evolution, humans developed capacities for creative, open-ended, recursive thought and boundless imagination that truly set our minds free to combine and manipulate ideas in more and more abstract ways… I aimed to naturalize the underpinning concept of agency, with its core elements of purpose, meaning, and value, so as to arrive at an understanding of the properties, scope, and limitations of human decision making…

His final sentence casts doubt on the wisdom of embarking of his enterprise, “to naturalize the underpinning concept of agency”:

The low-level details and laws of physics do not fully explain how the system evolves: not “fully” because indeterminacy leaves open multiple possible paths,

I felt validated in my concern that the terms available to us are inadequate to comprehend free will. Such a set would have to describe consciousness too because, in my experience, we experience possessing free will only while conscious—there is no other condition the existence of free will is relevant to. Something else he confirmed for me: the kind of naturalistic or physicalist discourse that takes up most of his book is a poor place to look for gaps in determinism, because the possibility of such gaps is denied in its foundational premise.